Historically, solo travel is often perceived as a bold activity for men where men are admired and applauded for their adventurous spirits (think Di Caprio in The Beach) whilst, conversely, female solo travel is often considered a risky business.
The journalist Laura Bates recently discussed the categorisation of women travellers ‘into reductive stereotypes’ where it’s often considered that the focus of a woman’s solo travel must surely be to find love and romance. Why else? We couldn’t possibly want to travel for travels sake.
My experience has been that when you choose to travel alone as a woman you’ll probably be met with the judgement of creased foreheads or the shaking of heads as various family members implore incredulously ‘but you can’t backpack alone’ as they question your travel choices and try to warn you of the dangers of countries (from the stance of them having never visited the same).
I can’t help but understand the narrative of ‘it’s far too dangerous to travel alone as a woman’ as stemming from an ideology which suggests that women shouldn’t stray too far from the home without a male protector. This position reeks to me of being steeped in stereotypes of women needing to be looked after rather than of an understanding that women are skilful and resourceful enough to have the capacity to explore the world and have the awareness to make equally important safety decisions when travelling on their own. Some of the most astute and focussed women that I’ve ever met have been other women travelling alone.
It’s certainly true that as a solo female traveller you’ll probably experience harassment at times. I experienced this most recently when I was on a long haul flight last year. I was sat in the middle aisle set of seats, a few seats up front to my left a young American woman occupied a window seat and two men, in their fifties, were sitting next to her. The guys were persistent in trying to engage the woman in conversation, talking and laughing loudly and shouting ‘American’ at her. She was doing her best to ignore them.
During the flight, the guys progressively got more and more drunk. I could hear the clinks of their glasses as they downed drink after drink, high fived and their behaviour became more obnoxious.
I’d gotten up to get a drink and as I was walking back to my seat I could see both guys turned to their left leaning over the woman as they talked AT her (essentially pinning her into the corner of her seat).
One of the guys turned to me smiling as I walked past and glared at him so hard I think I may have burned a hole into his head.
I could see the woman nodding and she was half turned away from them towards the window. It was clear she was trying not to engage. Shortly after, the woman stood up and asked to be let out of her seat to visit the rest room. Instead of moving from their seats, the guys gestured for the woman to move past them. I watched as she squeezed over their legs as they sat laughing and feigned to grab her. When the woman returned to her seat their behaviour got worse. I called the air-hostess over and explained what was going on. The air-hostess approached the woman asking if she’d like to move to one of the empty seats at the rear of the plane. The woman immediately moved seats and with that these guys lost their ‘entertainment’ for the rest of the flight.
Women shouldn’t have to tolerate this type of nonsense – I’ve had this kind of behaviour directed towards me before when travelling solo as I’m sure many other women have on occasion too. Equally though, I’ve also experienced this kind of harassment at home in the UK too so I don’t think the position that solo female travel is fundamentally dangerous in itself automatically flows given that most countries in the world haven’t stamped out sexism and gender inequality.
For me, the concern and/or mild criticism people venture towards solo female travellers fails to address prima-facie the position as to why they think it’s objectively anymore dangerous as a woman to travel alone than as a solo male. Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not saying I’ve not had run ins whilst travelling alone: I’ve been stuck where I can’t speak the language more times than I can count, scammed (even by innocuous looking kids), followed, I’ve been so deliriously ill I couldn’t move from my bed for 48 hours, and been lost umpteen times (including at night in a jungle) but these experiences are not attributable to my gender.
Travelling solo as a woman gives me an absolute and overwhelming sense of freedom. The ability to step out of your comfort zone alone into the unknown and into this vast and amazing world (and to see first hand how the wider world interacts around you) is part of where the magic of life lies for me. And, it’s entering this unknown space that I think is where we as people truly expand.
Kindness rather than danger or hostility has been the main baseline of my experiences along with an awareness that the world is made up of more good people than bad. Whilst, I certainly take safety precautions when travelling alone, I feel uncomfortable about any proposition that essentially attempts to constrain a woman’s travel movements for no other reason than her gender as these kind of narratives seem to me to feed into an idea that violence against women is inevitable (rather than tackling the societal and structural causes of the same).
Follow my next blog on why every woman should travel alone at least once in her life!